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No. 984:
Failed Conservation?

Today, a new take on energy conservation. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Herbert Inhaber and Harry Saunders take a disturbing look at energy conservation. They begin in 1845. An English mathematician, William Stanley Jevons, had just written a book titled The Coal Question. Watt's new engines were eating up English coal. Once it was gone, England was in trouble. And Jevons wrote:

... some day our coal seams [may] be found emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a coal-cellar. Our fires and furnaces ... suddenly extinguished, and cold and darkness ... left to reign over a depopulated country.

The answer seemed to lie in creating more efficient steam engines. Jevons may not have realized that steam engines were already closing in on thermodynamic limits of efficiency. But he did see that increased efficiency wouldn't save us in any case.

Look at the Watt engine, he said. It was invented because the older Newcomen engine was so inefficient. Did Watt cut coal consumption by quadrupling efficiency? Quite the contrary. By making steam power more efficient, he spread the use of steam throughout the land. Coal consumption was skyrocketing.

A few years later, Henry Bessemer invented a new highly energy-efficient scheme for smelting steel. Jevons's argument played out once more. Now that we could have cheap steel, we began making everything from it -- plows, toys, even store fronts. Energy-efficiency had again driven coal consumption upward.

We saw Jevons's script replaying yet again after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Our response was to create more energy-efficient cars. Since then, Americans have increased the number of miles they've driven to 162 percent of what it was.

Right on the heels of Jevons, Karl Marx went back to the efficiency argument. Marx believed that production would become so efficient as to eliminate most work. Few failures of Marxist theory were as dramatic as this one. Industrialization freed us all right. It freed us to find other things to work at.

At the very beginning of the 19th century, William Blake wrote, "Energy is pure delight." It may appear that our ecology and our survival are doomed as we ride the delightful downward roller coaster of energy production and consumption.

Still, Inhaber and Saunders offer hope. Sure, they trash any hope of creating a decent world with laissez-faire mechanisms. But they also remind us that we will conserve energy when we, as individuals, want to conserve energy. We'll conserve energy when we choose to turn off the lights as we leave the room -- when we choose to recycle bottles and ride the bus. It is you and I who'll save ourselves. It's never been anyone else -- not our government, not the collective. You and I will save the world -- but only when we realize how badly we want to save it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Inhaber, H., and Saunders, H., Road to Nowhere. The Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 6, November/December 1994, pp. 20-25.

See also the Wikpedia article about Jevons.